Jimmy Breslin, the surly, iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning New York newspaper columnist who covered the funeral of President John F. Kennedy from his grave digger’s perspective and corresponded with the “Son of Sam” killer, died on Sunday, multiple outlets reported. He was 88.
Breslin died at his Manhattan home of complications from pneumonia, his stepdaughter, Emily Eldridge, said.
Born in Queens, Breslin worked for nearly every newspaper with a New York zip code, including The New York Daily News, Newsday, The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Journal American.
Perhaps best known for his distinctly working class New York columns, Breslin was also a gifted novelist and also had turns as a screenwriter and playwright.
“I’m the best person ever to have a column in this business,” he once boasted. “There’s never been anybody in my league.”
His column, “Digging JFK’s grave was his honor,” was published in The New York Herald Tribune in November 1963. While most of the media flocked to cover the assassinated president’s funeral from a conventional perspective, Breslin went against the grain, taking the reader through a day-in-the-life of Kennedy’s grave dinner, Clifton Pollard.
“Clifton Pollard wasn’t at the funeral,” Breslin wrote. “He was over behind the hill, digging graves for $3.01 an hour in another section of the cemetery. He didn’t know who the graves were for. He was just digging them and then covering them with boards.”
In 1977, the so-called “Son of Sam” serial killer, David Berkowitz, wrote to Breslin, fueling legendary columns on the psychotic murderer for The New York Daily News.
“The night he got arrested, I walked into the courtroom in Queens and he pointed at me [and] said, ‘There’s Jimmy Breslin, my friend,’” Breslin said, according to The New York Daily News. “‘What was that? Shoot him,’ I said.”
As to his motivation, the answer you received depended on when you asked Breslin the question.
Once he said: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
Another time: “To please a reader: me.”
Breslin was born in Queens, the son of James Breslin Sr. and his wife Frances. The hard-drinking elder Breslin abandoned the family when Jimmy was 6; he died broken and broke in a Miami nursing home.
Breslin’s mother supported the family by working for 30 years as a welfare system administrator.
Breslin demonstrated few early skills as a wordsmith; he once said that he graduated high school “in the requisite five years” before a brief, undistinguished stay at Long Island University.
The college dropout-to-be was already working at the Long Island Press when he enrolled at LIU in 1948. Breslin was a sportswriter, bouncing between papers until landing at the New York Herald Tribune.
His 1963 column on Kennedy’s grave digger was a breakthrough and Breslin later covered Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in 1968, from close-up: Breslin was standing 5 feet away when Sirhan Sirhan struck at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
In 1969, Breslin joined author Norman Mailer on a twisted political ticket: Mailer for mayor, Breslin for city council president. After their predictable loss, Breslin observed, “I’m mortified to have taken part in a process that has closed the bar for the better part of the day.”
By then, the failed politician was a successful author. His second book, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”, was praised for its tales of the sad-sack New York Mets. “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” was made into a 1971 movie.
Breslin dabbled in television and magazine writing, but returned to the newspaper business in 1976 as a Daily News columnist and became part of one of the city’s most horrifying stories; the “Son of Sam” killings in 1977. Berkowitz sent Breslin several letters and impressed the columnist enough for him to observe: “He’s the only killer I ever knew who knew how to use a semicolon.”
Breslin jumped to New York Newsday in 1988, signing a contract for more than $500,000 a year. During the Crown Heights riots in 1991, the then-61-year-old columnist commandeered a cab and ordered the driver to head directly into the action.
About 50 rioters instead yanked Breslin from the taxi, robbed and beat him. Breslin was left with only his underwear and his press card.
Three years later, he underwent successful surgery for a brain aneurysm — an episode that led to his memoir.
While Breslin had crowds of admirers, he created an equal number of enemies. One of his most enduring feuds was with ex-Mayor Edward I. Koch, who once promised to “give the eulogy at Jimmy Breslin’s funeral,” a vow undone when Koch died in early 2013. Breslin also made his own ill-fated prediction. In his last regular column for Newsday, on Election Day of 2004, he rejoiced in the expected win of Democrat John Kerry for president; Republican George W. Bush was instead re-elected.
Breslin had two daughters and four sons with his first wife, Rosemary, who died of cancer in 1981. He later married Ronnie Eldridge, a former New York City councilwoman.
His elder daughter, Rosemary Breslin, died in 2004 at age 47 from a rare blood disease. His other daughter, Kelly Breslin, collapsed at a New York restaurant in April 2009 and died a few days later. She was 44. Eldridge said an arrhythmia episode was considered a likely cause.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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